- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2013

As he struggles to find momentum in his second term, President Obama is setting a dubious record for the slowest pace in assembling a new Cabinet.

Civil rights activists have criticized Mr. Obama for a lack of diversity in his new team, and the president’s nominees are largely people he already knows and trusts. But more striking to observers than the composition of the president’s Cabinet is its incomplete status nearly four months into his second term.

The White House on Thursday said it was Senate Republicans who were to blame for “historic obstructionism” against the president’s nominees.

“We call on Republicans in the Senate to stop gumming up the works when it comes to the confirmation process of nominees who are enormously qualified for the jobs that the president has asked them to fill and to get about the business of confirming them,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

As of this weekend, seven of Mr. Obama’s 23 Cabinet-level posts had yet to be filled with a confirmed nominee (the president announced three of the nominations just more than a week ago). A check of presidential Cabinets going back to the administration of Woodrow Wilson in 1917 shows no other second-term president in the past century has had such difficulty putting together a complete leadership team.

“It’s really surprising how slow it’s been, how long it’s taken,” said David Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “This reflects a change in appointment politics in general. We’re fighting over things that we used to not fight over, and nominations are one of these things.”

SEE ALSO: Obama’s Commerce pick Pritzker may face flak

Some past presidential nominations have led to drawn-out battles in the Senate; for example, President George H.W. Bush’s appointment of John Tower as defense secretary in 1989. But no other president in modern times has reached mid-May of the beginning of his second term with nearly one-third of his Cabinet unfinished.

President George W. Bush’s second-term Cabinet was ready on Feb. 15, 2005, with the exception of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, who was confirmed in late May. The last Cabinet officer of President Bill Clinton’s second-term team was sworn in on May 1, 1997. President Ronald Reagan’s second Cabinet was full by April 29, 1985.

Pointing fingers

The Obama White House blames Senate Republicans for slowing down the nominations process. Republicans briefly filibustered John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA in a dispute over drone policy, and on Thursday they boycotted a committee vote on the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the EPA in a dispute with the administration over transparency issues.

The president’s second-term nominations got off to a bad start immediately when Mr. Obama signaled his intention late last year to appoint U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice as secretary of state. Republican lawmakers objected strenuously over her role in misleading the public about the causes of the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and Mr. Obama ended up choosing Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts to head the State Department.

The White House said Republicans have bogged down the entire nominations process.

“Congressional Republicans have made no secret of the extraordinary lengths they will go to obstruct the confirmation process,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “That unprecedented invasiveness, often about matters decades old or unrelated to the post, slows down the process from beginning to end.”

Mr. Schultz pointed to the confirmation process for Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Republican senators submitted 395 “questions for the record” to Mr. Lew; Democrats submitted 49 such questions. The 444 questions for Mr. Lew were more than the combined queries for all Treasury secretary nominees dating back to Lloyd Bentsen in 1993.

Addressing the White House complaints, Don Stewart, who is a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said simply, “Jack Lew was confirmed.” The Senate approved Mr. Lew’s nomination on Feb. 27, seven weeks after Mr. Obama nominated him.

The White House also cited as examples of GOP obstructionism the rough treatment of Chuck Hagel, who was eventually confirmed as defense secretary, and a lower-level nominee who waited 501 days before confirmation.

Mr. Stewart said that Democrats control the Senate and that Republicans are carrying out their responsibility to examine nominees thoroughly.

“Secretary Hagel was a controversial nominee but, again, was confirmed,” Mr. Stewart said. “And I don’t remember then-Sen. Obama agreeing to just wave nominees through without debate. In fact, he’s the first president in history to have joined a filibuster of a nominee. So it’s always amusing to hear them complain.”

In 2006, then-Sen. Obama joined an unsuccessful Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito, appointed by Republican George W. Bush.

Political analysts say the heightened scrutiny has caused Mr. Obama and his advisers to be more cautious in selecting potential Cabinet members.

“His nominees are being vetted like never before because Congress is hostile and he knows they’ll tie up his nominees if there’s any way to do it,” said Paul Brace, a political science professor at Rice University. “This has placed anyone he’s considering under incredibly fierce scrutiny before they’re even nominated. Between what Obama’s administration requires of candidates and what they face for confirmation, it’s a very slow and delayed process.”

Mr. Schultz said the administration “has adopted the highest ethical standards in history, and the caliber of our nominees and their preparedness to serve reflect that high bar.”

Trickle-down effect

The delays in confirmations have a trickle-down effect on Cabinet agencies, Mr. Lewis said.

“It slows down everything,” he said. “It’s not just the slowness in the Cabinet appointments themselves, but also the sub-Cabinet appointments that are often instrumental in doing the kind of rule-making and regulation that are associated with modern presidential agendas. To the extent that acting officials are in those roles, things just slow down. Civil servants become naturally cautious, and when somebody’s in an acting role, they don’t have as much political power or the ability to argue for bigger budgets.”

Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters have criticized the lack of diversity in his second-term Cabinet. If Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx is confirmed for secretary of transportation, there will be three blacks in the Cabinet, one fewer than the first term. The number of Asian-Americans has dropped from three to one: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, a holdover from the first term. And if Labor Secretary-nominee Thomas Perez is confirmed, the number of Hispanics also will have declined from three to one.

Mr. McConnell blasted Mr. Perez on Wednesday as a “crusading ideologue” in his service as a top official at the Justice Department.

Mr. Perez’s nomination is indicative of another trend in the president’s second-term nominations: He’s shown a tendency to select people with whom he has developed working relationships. Mr. Lew was his chief of staff; Mr. Obama served with Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry in the Senate; Commerce nominee Penny Pritzker is a longtime friend and fundraiser; U.S. Trade Representative nominee Michael Froman served on Mr. Obama’s National Security Council.

And there are seven holdovers from the first term in the Cabinet, in addition to Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

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